Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review of the Film "Home", A Documenting of Societal Failure and Unaccountability

"I can't save them from everything, but I try to do what I can."
SPOILER ALERT: This entry is about the film Home and contains many spoilers.

Yesterday I watched the documentary, Home, about the struggles a single mother faces in buying a new home and leaving the projects.  From IMDb:
'Home' follows Sheree Farmer, a single mother of six, as she tries to buy her first home, and get her kids out of the drug-infested, crime-ridden, and gang-controlled neighborhood in which they live. 
What is most fascinating about the story is how vividly it illustrates the depth of tragedy faced by so many living at the margins of our society.  Sheree Farmer is handed what appears to be a too-good-to-be-true gift from a community non-profit: the promise to subsidize a brand new house valued at $225k, offering a mortgage to her for only $125k - essentially a gift of $100k.  All she has to do is get her credit in order in a few weeks time.  Unfortunately, this proves too much for Sheree to manage.  Stressed beyond measure, she eventually gives up and stops returning the community non-profit liason's phone calls.

Sheree works for the VA, shuttling seniors to and from medical appointments, while taking care of six children at their home in the projects of Newark New Jersey.  Her first two credit issues are easily resolved.  She can afford payment on an outstanding medical bill.  A $1500 cell phone bill is forgiven, after she claims it had been stolen.  (Had it really?  We can only hope, for the sake of Sheree's moral integrity.  At another point in the film, her ex-husband denies her accusations that he physically abused her.  She also claims he became addicted to crack, and took to selling family groceries, including frozen steaks out of the ice box.  Was he such a monster, and she so blameless?  Under great psychological stress, could she sometimes "embroider" the truth a touch?)

But two other issues are more troubling.  Sheree recounts that, after her eldest daughter refuses to perform her chores, Sheree gets her belt and attempts to beat her with it.  The daughter grabs a mop to defend herself.  In the ensuing scuffle, Sheree begins to beat her daughter with her fists, and then calls the police, telling them her daughter is "out of control".  But they take Sheree to jail, charging her with assault.  After two days in jail, the court sends her daughter to live with her father, and forbids Sheree contact.

The final credit problem regards an old issue with her ex-husband, who, after Sheree bailed him out of jail, never turned up at court.  Sheree apparently didn't get notices from the bail bondsman (again, did she really?), who then incurred legal expenses as well as a fee for tracking down her husband, adding further charges to her bill.  This infuriates Sheree, who feels she is being punished for the bad deeds of her lousy ex-husband.  One can see the defiance seething beneath her skin, even after the bondsman offers to reduce her bill.  The community liason, just wanting to see Sheree to move on with her life and into a wonderful new home, pleads with her to simply pay the bail bondsman, even offering to loan her the money interest free.

In the meantime, Sheree is overwhelmed by family life.  A younger daughter has been fighting with a boy down the street.  She wants to go and talk with the boy's parents but her daughter claims not to know his address.  While driving the van at work (being filmed nonetheless), she tries to manage the care of her children over the phone.  One has taken sick and must be taken to the doctor.  Meanwhile, her ex-husband has suddenly decided to claim two of their children as dependents on his tax returns - obviously costing her thousands in tax credits.  Although he pays a couple hundred a month in child support, Sheree points out that her children are all truly dependent on her on a daily basis.

We don't know a whole lot about Sheree's life history.  She hasn't had much more than a high school education.  She's African-American and lives in Newark, NJ, a depressed city with high unemployment, crime, poverty, and low education.  She repeatedly expresses a sense of hopelessness, frustration, anger and defeat.  At one point she tells the camera "I just can't do it anymore, I just can't."   One thing you don't see is Sheree breaking down in tears.  One might imagine this is a luxury she simply can't allow herself. 

In the end, it is indeed too much.  She worries about the prospect of moving from what she knows.  Hanging on by a thread, how can one blame her?  An imagine comes to mind of a cat in a tree, cowering from the hand stretched out to rescue her.  Taking everything she has just to keep from falling, the idea of taking a leap into the unknown requires an extra level of strength.

The major fault lines in American politics are divided along the notion of opportunity.  One side sees it as something that might well exist, but that innumerable obstacles stand in the way of people realizing it.  These may be physical limitations - things like money for car insurance.  Or they might be knowledge-based - like not knowing the right forms to fill out or the availability of neighborhood resources (if they even exist).  But they are just as often psychological - things like trust, confidence, or self-control.  These psychological limitations do not appear out of nowhere.  They might arise from real skills never learned (the love of a family, a behavioral mentor), or simply continued, day-to-day knife-like pressures that fray at one's integrity and emotional health.

The other side of the political divide diminishes these limitations as mere inconveniences - at best tests which one must overcome.  They emphasize the abstract existence of opportunity, and assume that if it is not being realized, then it is the fault of the individual for not trying hard enough.  Attempts to offer help individuals who've been dealt a difficult hand are trivialized as "handouts", insults to the ability of an individual to take credit for his own accomplishments.

The two largest problems with this view is that it is, at its core, immaterial and without grounding in the natural universe, and that it is incoherent.  First, by assuming that every individual is free to realize available opportunity, it denies that an individual's agency is something that must be developed from a functioning social system.  But then, it claims that any effort to help an individual who has not had access to functioning social structures is itself a negative social structure, in that it ultimately limits individual agency by creating in them a sense of "entitlement" that fosters reliance on charity, as opposed to personal responsibility.

These two stances are incongruent.  Individual agency is either free from the causality of social structures or it is not.  If it is free from them, then charity could not limit agency.  If charity has an effect on human agency, as a negative social structure, agency is therefore dependent upon social structures.

My suspicion is that those who would stand by this incongruent politics would want to have it both ways, arguing that agency is only partly affected by social structures.  Yet this then begs the question of where a line is to be drawn between the determining effects on agency and that which emerges free from constraint.  Unfortunately when you look at the data on the development of human agency, it is consistently dependent on prior causes, namely social structures that facilitate its construction (the only way to truly take social structures out of the equation, thus isolating what might be left, is to observe a child raised without social interaction, an obviously terrible idea.)

One might say then, that a basic minimum of social structures are required for the emergence of this "free" agency.  Again, how might one untangle what is free from what has been learned?  And when we look at the data, every variable points to a cause.  I call these factors societal capital, in order to give this process of human development a theoretical framework.  Evidence supporting it is profound, while refuting it would be rather simple.  Just as the theory of evolution could easily be refuted by the discovery of relatively new fossils embedded deeply within a much older strata of rock (for instance, a cat skull found in 1 billion year old layer of sediment), my theory of societal capital could easily be refuted by a pattern of human behavior that does not conform to any known cause, seemingly existing outside the reaches of social structure causality.  Outliers are indeed sometimes found, but aside from themselves not being representative of anything like a pattern, there are indeed after further examination usually specific causal factors at work.

Sheree farmer is not anything like an outlier.  Her lot in life could have been easily predicted by social research.  This is not to say that nothing could have been different for her.  Rather, it is to say that things could have been different had social structures been in place for her.  The tragedy is that, despite the enormous hard work, compassion and dedication of the community non-profit, it was still not enough to overcome the extent to which the Newark community has been ravaged by societal capital depletion.  The larger tragedy is that in the upcoming presidential election, we have such a close race race between the conservative position, which would either deny much of what ails Newark and citizens like Sheree, as well as assume that the solution requires reducing even further our attempts to give them a helping hand, and the progressive position, which holds that the problem is access to societal capital, and seeks to hold larger society accountable for this terrible tragedy.

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